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Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year, sort of

It seems trivial in light of Benazir's murder and the will-they-or-won't-they uncertainty about elections (here's a hint: It looks like they won't, at least for a while), but in the interests of trying to retain a positive attitude toward things like, um, life, here are a few signs that 2008 might actually be somewhat more hopeful than 2007 turned out to be, for me at least.

1. My new book, Monster, 1959 comes out on February 19.

2. Uzee's new book, The Geometry of God, was released on December 19 in India and has made its way here to Pakistan already. With luck, she will get some great reviews and attention for it; she's also having a number of European editions published. (You can order it online, from Liberty Books in Karachi: http://www.libertybooks.com/Books/BookPreview.aspx?ItemID=21109 . It's roughly ten bucks for a hardcover, not bad.

3. The New England Patriots football team, which has gone for a perfect season of 16-0 for the first time in the 88-year history of the National Football League, looks poised to win their two playoff games and go into Super Bowl. If they win, it will be their fourth championship since the 2001 season and they will be recognized as, in all likelihood, the greatest football team in history.

4. Sooner or later--probably later--elections probably will take place here in Pakistan. Whatever the outcome, it will be a first step out of the military-controlled government of the past several years, which can only be a good thing.

5. In November, elections probably will take place in the United States. Whatever the outcome, it will probably mark an end the the militaristic right-wing xenophobia of the past several years, which can only be a good thing. (Note the use of the word "probably." Democrats can be just as militarily xenophobic as Rpublicans, kids. They just revel in it a little less, usually.)

6. As a result of [5.], there may be some serious movement on carbon-emissions regulation or other anti-global-warming initiatives. (Though we're probably moving past 2008 with this item...)

7. I will hopefully get my hands on The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, Volume 2--which was actually released in 2007--thus allowing me to watch classics of film genius such as The Leech Woman (1960), The Deadly Mantis (1957), Dr. Cyclops (1940), and Cult of the Cobra (1957). For some time now I've been writing a guide book to monster movies like these from the 1950s; whether it will ever see the light of day, I don't know. But meanwhile I'm having a great time watching these movies, and 2008 holds these and a few more in store for me, I think.

I wanted to make a list of 10 items but at the moment I'm blanking out after seven. Okay then, watch this space. No doubt I'll think of three more the second I log off. And of course, your suggestions are always welcome...

Don't forget the poll at the bottom of this page! So far we have a clear front-runner, in case you haven't been following the campaign...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Benazir's murder

In 1979, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto--Benazir's father--was hanged by the government of then-military ruler Zia-ul-Haq. Zia had taken power in a coup, overthrowing Bhutto, who was Pakistan's first democratically elected Prime Minster.

Zia got lots of money from the USA.

When Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan was declared a front-line state, a strategic ally against Soviet expansion, etc. Zia's government was funded to the tune of millions of dollars. Democracy in Pakistan could take a back seat to US interests: there was a war on.

Fast forward to December 2007. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, is shot and killed at a political rally while the country again wilts under a US-financed military dictatorship. General (now "Mister") Musharraf has received $10 billion in assistance since 2002. Pakistan is once again a front-line state, a strategic ally against terrorism (now fighting the "extremists" who were previously financed by the US to fight against the Soviets). Not surprisingly, democracy in Pakistan has again taken a back seat to US interests. After all, there's a war on. Again.

Isn't it odd, then, that George Bush and Condi Rice were unable to wait even a day after Benazir's death before piling on the pressure: "Elections must go forward!" or words to that effect. Many people here in Pakiston wonder: where was this pressure in 2006? Or 2005? Or 2003? Or in March, when Musharraf sacked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, suspended the Constitution, all the while pocketing billions in US aid?

And more sinisterly, people are wondering this: With the two largest opposition parties either leaderless (PPP) or boycotting the election (PML), what's the point of having elections at all? The only conceivable outcome will be the rubber-stamping of the current regime, giving them a phony legitimacy for another five years. So an illegal, amoral and militaristic regime, backed by US money, will be here to stay. There are many here who believe that this is precisely what the Americans want. There are many precedents--Iraq in the '80s, Iran in the '60s and '70s, Latin America: make your own list.

I have no way of knowing who was responsible for Benazir's murder. "Al-Qaeda" could be anybody. "Extremists," ditto. The government today released a statement that Benazir wasn't killed by gunfire, but by knocking her head against the sunroof of her car. It sounds like a sick joke, but that's the official position. This, despite the attending surgeon's statement that she was killed by bullet wounds; despite a film that shows the assailant firing a pistol from a distance of three meters; despite the reports of eyewitnesses riding inside the car, that Benazir was hit twice by gunfire in the neck and head.

I don't know the purpose of the government's outlandish story--maybe to shift blame away from their inadequate security arrangements. Many are accusing Musharraf of complicity, and perhaps he is trying to dampen the conspiracy theorists. If that is his intent, it's failing. Someone should tell him: you don't douse suspicions by issuing patently ludicrous statements. And someone should tell Bush: you don't foster democracy by funding dictators.

Here's a link to the newspaper stories carrying the goverment's claims.

http://www.dawn.com/2007/12/29/top5.htm and

http://www.dawn.com/2007/12/29/top6.htm

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir murdered

I was no fan of Benazir Bhutto; she was as corrupt as any politician I know. But, she didn't deserve a bullet through the neck, and Pakistan doesn't deserve the mayhem that will undoubtedly result from it. So, RIP, Benazir.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

All Things Considered...

National Public radio (NPR) asked me to participate in a holiday program in which writers talk about books that they associate with the holidays. Since I'm not a Christmas Carol kind of guy, I wrote about Animal Farm, which is maybe not a typical yuletide book, but there you go. In theory I was going to read this essay on the air during the show, but my being here in Pakistan made that somewhat difficult, so instead they just posted it online.

Here's the link:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17395297

What's interesting is that I actually sent them two essays, overachiever that I am, because I couldn't decide whether to go highbrow (Animal Farm) or honest (The Martian Chronicles). Not surprisingly, NPR went highbrow, even though the Bradbury book is really more of a Christmas book for me because my sister Eleanor gave it to me one year. Anyway, for those of you who are interested, here is the alternative NPR essay that wasn't used:

"For Christmas 1979 my sister gave me an oversized, illustrated edition of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. 28 years later I still have it, and expect to go on having it for another 28. It’s pretty beat; a yellow stain splashes aross the front cover, probably incurred when being transported to Boston after college or Arizona for grad school, or shipped to Morocco or Pakistan later on. Maybe it’s beer, or tea, or just rainwater. But the pages are still clean, and Ian Miller’s illustrations, all straight lines and geometric curves that look etched or lithographed, are as sharp as ever. The pictures are sense-impressions inspired by the story’s poetry, rather than simple realistic drawings; they’re unsettling, and they keep surprising me no matter how many times I go back to them.

"I have strong holiday associations with Bradbury’s book because it’s the first one, maybe the only one, that I remember asking for as a present. Seven bucks was a lot for a book in those days of 99 cent paperbacks, and its large nine-by-six inch format made it special. It was the first book that I had ever wanted even though I’d already read it; this copy was something to reread it. This was new. I remember the feeling, as I peeled off the wrapping paper, that I was looking at a really adult book.

I was right.
The Martian Chronicles is, as far as I’m concerned, a 20th century American classic, something that ought to be read in college alongside Hemingway and Zora Neale Hurston, but its presence in the science fiction ghetto has prevented widespread appreciation. It’s a book that deals with thematic issues shunned by many better-known books—exploitation and colonialism, race and class, manifest destiny versus environmental pillage. Its pages are permeated by a sense of loss, wistfulness, mourning. There are chapters that induce chuckles, and others that are plain terrifying.

It evokes images that have stayed with me for decades. Bradbury’s evocation of an alien world of red deserts, dessicated oceans and dusty canals is as remote as anything could be from my wintry Connecticut holidays with their snow-shrouded hemlocks. But somehow, he made that landscape speak to me. From that book, I learned about the importance of setting, that a place can play as much of a role in the story as any character. I also learned that reality needn’t be much of a barrier to a writer seeking to wrest some emotional response from the reader. In fact, sometimes the job is made easier by leaving strict realism behind. I took this lesson to heart.


I read
The Martian Chronicles that winter during Christmas break, and several times since. It never fails to surprise and impress me. It’s one of those books that has so much packed into its 28 chapters, its dozens of little vignettes, that it will always reflect something different each time you look. Just like the moon, or maybe two of them, passing across the sky at night."

What's amazing is that you can now buy a used copy on Amazon for about four bucks. Does this count as progress? You decide...


Eid Mubarak - Happy Hannukah - Merry Christmas - Happy New Year

Monday, December 10, 2007

An author worth looking up


I've just finished a book called Leo the African by Amin Maalouf. Another great book by a great writer, some of whose other novels include Balthazar's Odyssey, Samarkand, The Gardens of Light and The Rock of Tanios. All these are terrific reads.

Maalouf writes historical novels. His obsession lies with the age of empire; not just western empires, but eastern ones too, and especially, how they clashed and melted and merged. Given the current geopolitical situation, this is healthy stuff to think about. Leo the African, which is based on the life story of a genuine historical figure, begins with the fall of Granada when the (Inquisition-lovin') Spanish conquered it; then moves to Fez, then on to Cairo just as the Ottomans show up to trash the place; before winding up in Rome, as it's about to be swamped by German Lutherans. It seems astonishing that one guy could see the collapse and sacking of no fewer than three major cities in one lifetime, but there you go. Mixed in with all this is the engaging human story of Hasan (later Leo)'s own life, family, wife, children etc. It's a fairly astonishing piece of storytelling, and it just flows right along.

All of Maalouf's books have this richness, and this momentum. He's from Lebanon, poised precariously between east and west, so I suppose his writing reflects the comsmopolitanism (is that a word?) of his worldview. In other words, a lot goes in, so a lot comes out. Samarkand is about Omar Khayyam, who wrote the Rubayyait; it takes place both centuries ago, when Omar wrote it, and now, when the manuscript itself is at the heart of a mystery. Balthazar's Oddysey again takes in the 17th-century Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, Italy and England. His books are always full of people going somewhere, and chatting breezily as they do so, and I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.

I also hugely enjoyed The Gardens of Light, a book about a boy named Mani who grows up in the third century AD in this strange, ultra-ascetic order of men--think of an uber-Taliban before there was any Islam--and who rejects it to go off and become a sort of all-purpose mystic. Eventually he founds a religious/philosphical school called Manicheanism, which is rejected as blasphemous by just about everyone you can imagine. Again, it's impressive the way Maalouf intertwines strands of philosophy with everyday, dirt-under-your-fingernails concerns.

So, great books, a great writer.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Cooking Tips for Bachelors #3: Mastadon Steaks

1. Sharpen spear. (Note: If available, "flint-tip" variety works better than "sharp stick.")
2. Locate mastadon herd.
3. Choose target. NB: Immature or elderly individuals work best. Try to avoid obviously sick animals, although they may appear appealingly vulnerable.
4. Throw spear at mastadon. Aim for the "kill spot" just behind the ear.
5. If necessary, repeat step (4.)
6. If necessary, repeat step (4.) many times with great haste. NB: a supply of spears is essential for this. Making a supply beforehand is a good idea.
7. Once mastadon is slain, knock together fist-sized rocks until one has a sharp edge. Use this "scraper" tool to hack off meat.
8. Invent "fire." NB: The opening to your cave is a good spot for this.
9. Roast meat over "fire" till tender.
10. Share roasted steaks with other members of your tribe, esp lithe nubile members of the opposite gender (or your own gender if preferred). Bask in their grateful glances.
11. With full bellies, watch the moon rise. Invent stories that explain creation. Exchange meaningful glances with other tribe members.
12. Repeat as necessary.
13. Later: invent wheel.
14. Later still: Go into a quiet cave somewhere and paint some stuff.

Remember to take the poll at the bottom of this page!

Friday, December 7, 2007

I can't vouch for this organization, but it seems interesting

I got this email in my box today, entitled "A National radio Broadcast for Prisoners." I thought I would pass it along to anyone who is interested. The organization is called Thousand Kites.

"Dear Friend,

The Thousand Kites Team would like to ask for your support for a special radio project called Calls from Home. Calls from Home is a simple project. We open our recording studio's toll-free number from 3-11pm (eastern time) on December 11th and record calls from prisoner families and supporters from across the country. We then broadcast the program on over 120 radio stations across the country and bring hundreds of voices (people singing songs, reading poems, and speaking from the heart) to hundreds of thousands of prisoners. We need your help in spreading the word and making the program as strong as possible. Here is how you can help us: Call in to the show on Dec. 11th from 3-11pm eastern time. Call toll free at 888-396-1208 and the Thousand Kites team will be there to take your call. We usually just say "Caller, you're on the air, who would you like to send a message to tonight?" (If you want to call a message in right now you can call our answering machine at 877-518-0606.) Spread the word to other people. Please pass this on and ask other folks to get involved. You can learn more at our website at www.thousandkites.org

After the show is recorded we put it up for free downloads. Download it and get it played our your local community radio station, play a section at a meeting, get it played at a church, class, or even in a prison and hold a discussion about incarceration in the United States.

Peace,

Thousand Kites Team

Phone: (606) 633-0108Email: thousandkitesproject@gmail.com Thousand Kites, a national dialogue project on the U.S. criminal justice system. Look for our new website in mid-December. www.thousandkites.org "

I don't know any more than this, except that the US has the largest prison population by percentage of any industriaized nation, and that it can't be too enjoyable to be in there, maybe especially at holiday time. And yes, lots of those people are rapists and murderers and so on, who deserve to be there. But some are people who got arrested with two pot cigarettes or whatever, or who go convicted of crimes they didn't commit, or even--imagine!--who have repented.

If anyone knows any more about this, I'm curious.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Back online!

Well, hello there. For the past 17 days I've been unable to access this blog, whether for technical reasons or political ones, I don't know. My good pal Margaret has done a couple postings for me from the USA, and I hit a net cafe a couple days ago. But that's all behind me now. I hope. Great!

Let's review recent developments:

1. Musharraf has resigned as Chief of Army. (In theory, good; in practice, so what? He's amended the Constitution--y'know, the one he suspended--so that he can't be prosecuted for anything he's done as President, nor can he be deposed.)

2. Moosh has also announced elections on January 8. (In theory, good; in practice, hmm. The opposition parties are discussing whether to take part, or to boycott. The fear is the elections will be rigged, quite a likely scenario. If they are, and the opposition contests them only to "lose," they will be contributing a veneer of credibility to Moosh's "victory." Whereas if they don't participate at all, the elections will plainly lack credibility from the get-go.)

3. Some people are still in jail for protesting the emergency. (Bad)

4. Other people are out of jail and/or house arrest, including Benazir, Asma Jehangir, and Imran Khan, while Nawaz Sharif has returned from exile--again--and is being allowed to stay this time. (In theory, this is all good, but see #2 above. Apart from Asma, these are all politicians, and they may or may not contest the election anyway.)

5. Pakistan is getting absolutely demolished by India in the ongoing cricket series. (Very very bad, both in theory and--especially--practice.)

6. Uzee saw bee-eaters on the front balcony the other day. (Very very good.)

There is, in theory, the chance that I will be appearing on National Public radio's "All Things Considered" program in the weeks ahead as part of some sort of "books and holidays" series of broadcasts. I don't know much about it, but stay tuned. In the meantime, you can amuse yourself with my article on Forbes.com if you haven't already(see the entry below) and also Uzee's blog with its numerous interesting articles (address on the sidebar). And of course, don't forget the poll at the bottom of this page!

Next time: a little bit about Monster, 1959.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

My Article on Esquire.com

Hey, looky here. Esquire.com asked me to write something for their feature called “Last Line.” They ask writers to go look at the last line that they’ve written—a journal entry, a work in progress, whatever—and talk about it, and about whatever occurs to them in so doing. It’s an interesting idea, because it gets people to talk about stuff they’re still in the middle of writing—a lot of “last lines” will get edited out further down the road—as opposed to stuff they have finished. I don’t usually like to talk about stuff while it’s still half-formed, but what the heck. So I did it. It was a multi-step process, as I wrote my initial response, and then the editor asked me to expand on something I mentioned in passing, about living outside the US. I did that, and then did some more, and she liked it all and wanted to keep it. In fact that’s the slant they ended up giving to the whole piece.

You can read the article here:

http://www.esquire.com/the-side/last-line/lastline112007

The other articles in the series are also interesting.

In entirely unrelated news, here is Musharraf’s response to Sky News when they asked him, a couple days back, if he had thought of resigning:

“But should it be given up now and we will have better Pakistan, a stabler Pakistan and we could have very good elections, without me? Very good, maybe I take that decision, okay?”

I think the guy’s starting to have a breakdown. (Starting?)

Imran Khan is still in jail; Asma Jehangir and Benazir are still free. Some prisoners have been released, while others remain in jail, and most of the TV stations are back. But, those which have refused to agree to the new broadcasting rules are still off the air, and a number of protests at this are taking place around the country.

Coming soon: My new book cover. And don’t forget to take the poll at the bottom of this page!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Newsweek can go to Hell


The other day, UK-based Sky News surveyed people in Pakistan, asking which political party or political leader would be the best to lead the country out of the current mess. They asked thousands of people from all over the country. The answers:

36% Nawaz Sharif (PML)
28% Benazir Bhutto (PPP)
17% General Musharraf
5% Imran Khan
3% JI (religious fundos)
3% JUI (more religious fundos)
1% MQM (Karachi-based ethnic party)
8% undecided

From what I can gather, just talking to ordinary people, and from having contacts with literally thousands of students, colleagues and parents over the years, these numbers seem about right.

This pretty neatly gives the lie to those smug bastards at Newsweek and their screeching that Pakistan is “the most dangerous country in the world.” That claim, which was splashed on the cover of the rag a couple weeks ago along with a photo of three crazed, bearded fanatics howling at the camera, would lead you to believe that Pakistan is a country full of crazed, bearded, howling fanatics who want the country to become a haven for the same. While I don’t deny that there are some of those here, mainly centered in the northwest of the country--and nor will I deny, as some Americans would, that the actions of the US have lent the fundos credibility and support--I strongly protest against the idea that they are this nation’s defining group. They’re not. They have overplayed their hand, targeting ordinary people, mosques, even kids and schools, and many of their borderline sympathizers/supporters have shunned them. Thursday’s arrest of Imran Khan, turned over to the cops by a bunch of student militants allied with JUI, will put off even more people.

Take a look at those numbers again: Six percent of Pakistanis back the religious parties. That’s a much smaller percentage than in the USA, I’m willing to bet. The Republicans have relied on hardcore Christian vote for years, for something like 20% of its core support, and drum up a lot of phony “issues” (gay marriage, anybody?) to mobilize them. If an evangelical party ran in an election with a proper organzation and a chance of gaining some Congressional seats, you can bet it would get more than 6% of the vote. I read somewhere that 40% of Americans don’t believe in evolution, for God’s sake.

So screw Newsweek. I’d love to see them run a cover with a photo of a swastika-tattooed skinhead, the latest high-school shooter, and one of the guards at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, with the caption: “The the most dangerous country in the world is the United States.” But then, some people might object that that representation isn’t fair.

If you think I’m biased, try this article by a BBC reporter who was in Pakistan on vacation at the time of the article:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7090632.stm

Now on to other news.

Mush has promised to step down as Army chief by the end of the month. To which I say: so what? He has amended the Constitution (y’know, the one he suspended) so that it is the President, not the army chief, who cam impose or rescind a state of emergency. In other words, he imposed emergency while army chief, then changed the law giving the power to the president, now he’s going to resign as army chief but stay president, with the same powers he had before. This is what’s known as a “cosmetic change.” The guy makes Harry Houdini look like an amateur. In the meantime, Benazir has been released from house arrest as has Asma Jehangir (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan), but Imran Khan (head of a rival political party) has gotten thrown in jail. Some of the news channels are still off the air while others have been allowed back, and I’m having trouble accessing this blog (hmm, coincidence?) while Pakistan got hosed by India yet again in cricket on Sunday, thus icing the series for good. Oy!

Oh and, hey, I have a book coming out in three months or so. I’ll run the cover in a few days. If I can get into this site.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Check out Uzee's blog!

Hey kids, the lovely and talented Uzma Aslam Khan has now got her very own blog up and running. Unlike mine, hers is less of an ongoing conversation full of smart-alecky comments, and more of a central point to links about her books, her online nonfiction articles, and various other items of interest such as interviews. Info can be found there about her new novel, The Geometry of God, which is forthcoming from Rupa & Co., India, within a few weeks, as well as numerous articles she has written, including a prescient one on Pakistan's judicial crisis, written way back in March. Also of particular interest (to me anyway) is her most recent article, written for Drawbridge magazine in the UK, about a trend in literature that is problematic, and encapsulated in novels like The Kite Runner and Brick Lane, and non-fiction about oppressed Muslim women and the men who treat them so bad. So if you've read any of that stuff (and even if you haven't), take a look.

All this and more can be found at

http://uzmaaslamkhan.blogspot.com/

I'll put a permanent link on the sidebar here so it'll be easy to find in the future.

In other news, for those of you who are keeping track of such things, Benazir is still under house arrest, we still don't have independent news channels, and the latest promise is that elections will be held by January 9. Which would mean a couple more months of martial law/emergency rule. John Negroponte is on his way to Islamabad to lean on Mush, which is nice. Shame it didn't happen last year, three years ago, five years ago, seven years ago, but whatever. You can't have everything.

We watched Before Sunrise a couple nights ago. It was sweet, worth a look. We also watched The Usual Suspects and were underwhelmed, despite the great cast (Kevin Spacey, Benicio del Toro, Chazz Palmentieri, Gabriel Byrne). Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that crime thrillers would be a lot better if the chronology was all messed up (21 Grams, etc), and sometimes, okay, it works. But sometimes it doesn't really do much except seem confusing while trying to cover up what is, after all, a pretty thin plot. Oh well.

Hey! The Coen Brothers' adaptation of No Country For Old Men by Cormac Mccarthy--a great book--is coming our Friday. I won't see it here in Pakistan, but somebody, go watch and tell me how it is. If you dare. Fargo remains one of the great movies of all time and I've been waiting for the Coens to match those heights. This might be the one.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Cooking Tips for Bachelors (2): Russian Tea Cakes


So, the Mush government has decreed that civilians can be court-martialed. I always thought a court-martial was a military trial for a serving member of the armed forces, but not so. According to Sunday's paper: "The Army can now try civilians on charges ranging from treason, sedition and attack on Army personnel to 'assaulting the president with intent to compel or restrain the exercise of any lawful power' and 'giving statements conducive to public mischief.'"

Please read that last one again. You can be arrested and tried for saying something that contributes to "public mischief." Presumably, saying something like, "We think the Constitution should be restored," would fall into this category. Presumably, this blog--and many, many others--would fall into this category.

The farce goes on.

Meanwhile, in the same paper: "Bush made it clear on Saturday that his government still wants to work with Musharraf." Well sure! After all, the court-martial law is nothing more than a slightly watered-down version of the Patriot Act, and I bet Bush wishes he could roll that one through, too.

Bush also said that Mush "understands the dangers of Al-Qaeda," that Benazir "understands the dangers of Al-Qaeda," and that the Pakistani people "understand the dangers of Al-Qaeda." Although from my experience, most people here are far more cognizant of the dangers of the US Air Force (650,000 dead in Iraq, according to Human Rights Watch) and rather less concerned with a bunch a bearded fundos in the hills. But presumably, "the dangers of Al-Qaeda" are a convenient way of shutting down the dangers of, oh, free speech, free assembly, access to information, and political representation.

Fuck it. Let's make cookies:

My sister Eleanor sent me this recipe last week and I made them Saturday, for the first time in years. They rule.

1. Cream together 1/2 cup butter and 3/4 cup confectioner's sugar (or "icing sugar," as they call it here), and 2 teaspoons vanilla.

2. Mix 2 cups flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt.

3. Mix together [1.] and [2.]

4. Finely chop 3/4 cup of walnuts and mix them in too. Wash your hands and really mash the dough. The heat from your hands will soften it and turn it into a big smooth lump. But you have to do this or the mix will just remain crumbs.

5. When you have a big smooth lump, put it in the fridge for an hour or two.

6. Preheat the oven to 400. Scoop out teaspoonfuls of the dough and roll them between your palms till they are smooth little balls. Put them on an ungreased cookie sheet. You can pack them in: they won't spread or melt. A big sheet can hold 3 dozen cookies, the whole batch.

7. Bake 10-12 minutes till they're slightly golden. Don't burn the bottoms.

8. Let them cool a little and roll in confectioner's sugar. This will melt and form a glaze. When they're completely cool, roll them again. Oh man! They're good. They have that melt-in-your-mouth thing going on.

9. They're even better the next day, in my opinion, once they're firmed up a little.

10. Then when you're in the car with someone and you're passing a market, you can say, "Oh, can you stop a minute? I need to get confectioner's suger and walnuts for my next batch of Russian cookies." Enjoy the look of bewilderment on his/her/their face(s).

REMEMBER TO VOTE IN THE POLL AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Slouching Toward Islamabad

So, today we are again without independent TV news channels, which were blocked several days back, only to be restored roughly 36 hours ago, only to be blocked again.

However, Benazir was released from house arrest. Or so we hear from the Internet. We had to read about this online because we couldn't watch it on the TV news that wasn't being shown for fear that it would report when Benazir was arrested and so make the government look bad. Instead the government looks much better by not allowing any news at all while it arrests people and also beats lawyers with heavy sticks and locks up judges.

Mush has promised an election in, what, three and a half months? The US, of course, "welcomes this development." Sure it does. I would expect nothing less.

We are, I believe, rapidly approaching the point at which tragedy becomes farce. If we haven't already passed it.

Coming soon: Esquire magazine wants me! No kidding.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Good times, bad times

A piece of good news: as of yesterday, most of the independent news channels were back on the air. Not Al-Jazeera English (the best of the bunch, in my view), but CNN and BBC and, most importantly, the local independents. So that's good. Whether they're under pressure to adopt this line or that, I don't know.

Some bad news: Benazir is under house arrest now, according to AP. I'm no fan of BB--she's an opportunist whose alliance with Mush at least helped him stay in power that much longer--but it's always a bad thing in my book to lock up your political opponents.


That's all for this update. Stay tuned.

In the meantime this plant on my balcony is starting to bloom after 8 years. Must be the political climate, ha ha. Here are some pictures. I have no idea what it is, other than some type of succulent, but its flowers are wonky and yellow. No smell alas. This is just another thing I love about living in Lahore--the plant life veers between tropical and just plain warped.

And yes, that's an enormous rubber tree in the background.

Don't forget to vote in the poll at the bottom of this page!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Well all else is uncertain...

...there will remain my favorite site, The Onion.

Another day of demos and house arrests, tear-gassed lawyers and detained judges and plenty of people who would like things to change, now. Amid the fury, here are a couple of fun, book-related links. First, a short funny article:

http://www.theonion.com/content/news_briefs/third_person_limited

And second, a longer article discussing the book-movie nexus (which is so often a black hole):

http://www.avclub.com/content/node/69220

Have fun, and try not to get arrested.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Well, there's always sports

So, as Uzee and I were driving around today, the city seemed pretty calm. If anything there was a bit less traffic than expected on a Monday afternoon. No demos that we could see, an no more police/army presence than usual. Of course, we weren;t driving up on the Mall, which is where most of the activists have been getting rounded up and arrested.

So far, just about anyone who has ever resisted military rult has been locked up--opposition politicians, human rights activists, judges, lawyers. The TV stations are still off the air, but so far the papers are still being pretty critical. Knock on wood.

In the meantime, than God for sports, the true opiate of the people. Then again, maybe "Thank God" is the wrong phrase, since India hosed Pakistan in today's cricket match by 5 wickets--that's a fair bit, if you don't know the game. There are four more matches to the series in the next few weeks, but Pakistan needs to turn itself around in a hurry or they're doomed.

On a happier note, the New England Patriots football team squeaked by the Indianapolis Colts, 24-20, to remain undefeated on the season. This is a happy, happy thing. Maybe that 16-0 season really is possible. I hadn't thought much about it as a serious proposition, but...

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Bought and Paid for by the USA

Here in Pakistan, where I live, the general who runs things, Musharraf, declared a state of emergency yesterday. He sacked the head of the Supreme Court, suspended the Constitution, suspended a whole slew of local private TV channels, and cut phone lines to & from Islamabad. The emergency grants him powers to do pretty much whatever he wants; for example, he can have anyone arrested without charge, and held indefinitely--just like his friends the Americans do in Guantanamo. Opposition politicians like Imran Khan are under house arrest; so is Asma Jehangir, the head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Others, like Nawaz Sharif, are in forced exile.

This will probably not affect me a great deal. There may be a curfew imposed, or some other inconvenience. But I'm unlikely to be stopped by police, or arrested, or deported.

How it will affect the country at large is another question. There is plenty of alienation among the population as whole, mainly due to three things: economic policy, military action the northwest, and most of all, American hegemony.

The economy is booming--if you're lucky. After 9/11, a lot of expat money came flooding back into the country, and a lot of development and investment came along with it. People who already had money found themselves in a position to make a lot more. But along with this came outrageous inflation. My rent has multiplied in the past eight years; my electric bill has risen by 400% since 2001. Uzee and I feel the squeeze but we're not desperate; but the huge proportion of the country living on $1-$2 dollars per day is getting desperate. Last month, tomatoes hit $2.50 a kilo; they normally sell for about 35 cents. Onions, carrots, sugar, all the basic staples have shot up. This may not sound like a lot to you, but for a guy who earns a buck or two a day to feed his whole family, it's a big bloody fookin' deal. Meanwhile, imported cars are getting bigger and bigger for the few super-rich who are getting super-richer: a Mercedes dealership has opened in Lahore (!) for the first time, and I actually saw a snazzy little Jaguar a few streets from my house. So there's a lot of anxiety on the part of the common citizen, and a growing amount of resentment as well.

The second part of the dissatisfaction stems from the government's civil war in the northwest. Please understand, I'm no fan of the Taliban, I think they're wackos who need to be stopped. Nothing would make me sadder than to see a Taliban-style regime in this country. BUT, I don't think the best way to quell "militancy" is by indiscriminate military action. The US tried that in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Vietnam. It has failed in all three arenas. Not surprisingly, when people are faced with two unpalatable options, they will choose the less immediately unpalatable. So when the US (or the Pakistan Air Force) is dropping bombs on their villages, and the Taliban is saying, "Help us fight them," many people will think something like: "Well, the Taliban are scary, but at least they're not trying to murder my family." As a result, militancy grown more powerful with every industrial-strength western military offensive. I have no idea why this simple idea is so mysterious to the governments Bush et al.

And to their puppets. Which brings us to the third part of the equation: Musharraf has received $9 billion from the US since 2002. Make no mistake, he is doing the bidding of the States, and people here are tired of that. Thousands of people have been rounded up and "disappeared," held indefinitely without charge, at the behest of the US and its "war on terror." Investigation of these disappearances was the reason why the Chief Justice was sacked the first time around. (What, you say never read about this in The New York Times or heard it on CNN? I'm so surprised.) Pakistanis are being tortured and killed to satisfy the Americans, or killing one another in military strikes. When the (Democrat-led) Congress responds by demanding that Pakistan "do more" or when idiots like Obama try to rustle up a few more votes by threatening to bomb the country, people are naturally furious that their countrymen's lives (private citizens, rebels and soldiers) are being sacrificed for an "ally" who talks to & about them in such terms.

All of which undermines Condi's petulant little comment that the US wants "a smooth transition to democracy" and won't tolerate anything else. What a joke: the US has been paying for "anything else" for the past six years. (And a good deal longer, in places like Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Latin America... make a list.) Tell anybody in this country that the States is keen to promote democracy, and they will fall down on the ground, helpless with laughter. Until they stop laughing and start getting pissed off. Because democracy is what they want, and the United States of America is devoting enormous resources to preventing it.

Let me say again: people here do NOT want an Iranian-style revolution or a Taliban-type takeover. But they think they have been co-opted into fighting someone else's war. Suicide bombings are a common occurrance here; before Mush's US-funded attacks, they had never taken place. Sunni-Shia attacks are more frequent than ever before, and so on. So are attacks on Christians and other minorities, previously rare. Violence begets violence, remember?

All of this has been bought and paid for by the United States. Musharraf is there because of the US. The war is taking place because of the US. People are being rounded up and "disappeared" because of the US.

So where all this will head, I can't say. Has Mush made a mistake by imposing the emergency? Probably. According to some reports, the Supreme Court was on the verge of overturning his election last month (elected by the provincial assemblies, not the population at large), so this is his way of retaining office. But has he made a mistake that will result in severe negative consequences for him? That's harder to say. The last time the Chief Justice got sacked, in March, people did protest and people did turn out on the streets, and the government did reinstate him after several months. Now there's even more bad feeling out there. So maybe something like that will happen again.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Cooking Tips for Bachelors (1): Fried Eggplant Sandwiches

All right, kids, a lot of you may not realize that eggplant, in addition to being large, cheap, readily available, and purple, can also be quite tasty when prepared into this faux-burger type sandwich. Just follow these easy steps and you'll be chowing in half an hour, with plenty left over for 2 or 3 more lunches.

1. Cut eggplant into thin (1/4 inch or so) slices.
2. Sprinkle with plenty of salt and let sit for 20 minutes. This takes away the bitterness. Rinse well. They'll be plenty salty, so really scrub 'em.
3. Beat an egg or two and put some flour on a plate. If you're feeling really gourmet, you can add some black pepper or dried basil to the egg. (But no salt! There's enough already.
4. Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan. You can use any kind of oil, but I like to use olive oil so I can fool myself into thinking, "It's not really fried food, it's actually good for me."
5. Dunk the eggplant slices in the egg, one at a time. Flip them around the flour too so they're nicely coated.
6. Fry them about 5 minutes on a side, till they're golden brown. Drain them on newspaper.
7. Toast some bread, or a burger bun, or whatever you want to use as a bread-like product.
8. Slap 3 or 4 fried eggplant slices on the bread along with some sliced tomato, raw onion, cilantro if you have it, lettuce if you want, and whatever wetting substance you like (mayo, ketchup, mustard--ughh--or whatever suits you).
9. Devour with gusto.

And there you have it. One decent-sized eggplant is likely to deliver 15 to 20 slices, so you have plenty for the days ahead. And the next time you're riding in a car with someone you want to impress, you can say, "Hey, can we stop at the market? I've just run out of eggplant, and I need to get more." Then you can enjoy their bewildered silence.

PS: Don't forget to take the poll at the bottom of this page!

All Souls' Day

Welcome to November here at The Party Never Stops.

Okay, so, I guess I should mention that the Boston Red Sox won the World Series a few days ago. Not that I care, but I am a New England native through and through, and so these things matter in some tangential way. So okay, a moment of jubilation. Go ahead... okay, that's enough. Stop please. Thank you.

I'm frankly far more interested in Sunday's upcoming NFL clash between the 7-0 New England Guys Who Love Their Country And Want to Stick It to King George and the 6-0 Indianapolis Sickly Little Ponies Who Can Barely Stand Up, Let Alone Walk. This is the first time in the 88-year history of the NFL that two teams have met with both having records of better than 5-0. Should be a great game, and a high scoring one. Alas, being here in sunny Lahore, land of chirping hoopoes and swooping fruit bats--both of which I see on a regular basis--I will not in fact be able to watch the game. I might stay up and follow it on my computer, but then again, it starts 2:15am Lahore time. So the alternative plan is to sleep, and read the recap later.

In other news, I just finished a great book, The Inquisitor by Catherine Jinks. Probably you've never heard of this person. I hadn't, till I came across her book by chance at one of the massive remaindered-book bazaars they have dotting this city. Jinks is Australian, and unless you live in Australia you may not realize what a lively and thriving literary scene they have, one which barely ripples against the US or UK. This is a shame, since there are some good books out there, more than just Peter Carey. Who is, admittedly, great.

The Inquisitor is set in 14th-century France and concerns the murder of, yes, an inquisitor of heretical depravity, whose body is found chopped into pieces and scattered, along with his bodyguards. Good-natured Father Bernard, himself an inquisitor but also a nice guy who shuns things like the rack and misogyny, is called upon to investigate the case, and winds up risking his neck in the process. It's a lively story with a good, rich historical setting and plenty of twists. It strikes me as a kind of low-rent Name of the Rose, but I can't be sure, since I never read The Name of the Rose. (Somebody told me the last line was in Latin; I checked, and sure enough it was. I was like, "Oy.")

Oh and The Book of Samson is out in paperback. Sorry about the relentless sales pitch, but it is after all what I do:

http://www.amazon.com/Book-Samson-David-Maine/dp/0312353383/ref=pd_bbs_sr_3/105-0087864-1923615?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1193913091&sr=8-3

Monday, October 29, 2007

How My Day Starts


Right now I'm listening to Uzee play the tampura in the other room. She does this for about half an hour every morning. I can't think of a better way to start the day.

A tampura is a huge thing about five feet long, shaped roughly like a sitar but broader and wider. The base of it is a pumpkin-sized and -shaped sphere. Pumpkin-sized, because yes, it's made of a pumpkin. The one Uzee plays dates back to before partition, before 1947. It's an antique and it has a great sound.

There are four thin metal strings tuned to something like D, A, A and E. The four are plucked in succession and create this dreamy, hazy tone. But what makes the tampura a truly awesome instrument is that there is a mechanism inside the neck, running the length of the thing, which is--I think but I'm not sure--made of a metal strip, against which the strings rattle. This causes the tone of the string to vary once it's been plucked. So unlike, say, a guitar or piano or harp, which is designed to hold its tone once played, the tampura note goes through these "weeoww--weeoww--weeoww" variations. And when all four strings are played in succession, the "wee-owws" start blending and bouncing off one another. The sound is unearthly. Then you get the harmonics, which are high ringing treble tones caused by the wavelengths bouncing into one another; you can get them on a guitar by hitting a string at the right point over a fret, without pressing the string to the fret. (An old guitar trick.) But because the tampura's tones are changing constantly, these harmonics change too; so instead of just getting a "ding!" chime that fades out, you get something that literally sounds like a series of bells ringing in a descending scale over the base tones.

Anyway, writing about music, as the saying goes, is like dancing about architecture. But this is how my morning revs up almost every day, and it's a source of great pleasure for me. It's simultaneously dreamy and trance-inducing, yet also energizing. It helps me get in the frame of mind for writing, and helps me stay there longer, and helps me write better stuff.

There's a great deal more to living in Pakistan than Benazir and Musharraf and bomb threats. There are also little things like, oh, music and art and food and textile design and five thousand years of culture. Those get overlooked often, unfortunately, but they shouldn't.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Get 2++ inches bigger TODAY!

Ah yes, spam.

I'm not sure how they do it. For some reason, my wife (for example) doesn't get ten messages per day promising to increase the size of her penis. So why do I? Is it because "dave" is part of my e-mail address? Is there some computer program that recognizes names as being male or female, and filters them accordingly? Or is it all done at random? I do, occasionally, get spam messages seemingly aimed at women -- "Stop menstrual cramps forever!" or some such -- but the overwhelming number have to do with either 1) buying fake Rolexes, 2) seizing investment opportunities that simply can't be missed, or, yes, 3) increasing the size of my reproductive mechanism to provide me further satisfaction and enjoyment. And I didn't even realize that I needed this.

The titles of these messages are all I read, but they can be entertaining: "She was shocked when she saw it!" which may or may not be a good thing, or the admirably direct "Size does matter" or the celebrity endorsement of "Ron Jeremy recommends this." (A quick google search reveals that Ron J. is a porn star.) Then there's "Wouldn't you feel better with a little more?" Well, yeah, sure, who wouldn't? Of course, it took me a while to figure out that these messages were all concerned with the same thing. "A little more" could refer to money, or press freedom, or eggplant, or whatever. (If I could increase the size of my eggplant by two inches, now that would be something.)

The thing is, of course, that inevitably I start to wonder if maybe I should have a little more. After all, if size does matter than maybe I would shock her and then I'd feel better with 2+ inches since after all, if Ron Jeremy recommends it... This is the nature of advertising: it introduces anxiety that you never felt before in order to make you pay money for stuff you don't need in order to assuage the anxiety you didn't have before you saw the ad.

Recently I got in touch with a former student from my high school teaching days here in sunny Lahore. This woman graduated in 2000 and was one of my two favorite students, ever. She's now working for an ad agency in Karachi. Among other things, she has worked on the Mountain Dew soda campaign here in Pakistan. It's got me thinking about advertisers and advertising and what a strange form of mind control it really is. I will confess to some attraction to it. The fact that you are, essentially, manipulating people into buying shit they don't need (soda, lipstick, yet another car, TV, novel about Noah's ark, whatever) poses a sort of "Can I actually make them do it?" challenge that is, in its way, hard to resist. The question, "Does the world really need to consume more fookin' Mountain Dew?" is quickly replaced with, "Let's see how much of this repulsive shit we can get the idiots to suck down!" Cigarettes are the most blatant example of this--cigarette TV ads are alive and well in Pakistan, and play throughout things like cricket matches, which is criminal, if you ask me. "Life is too long! Smoke these things and make it shorter, because, um, you'll look cool, and otherwise people will think you're a loser." But all advertising is based on the same principle.

So I told my student I was intrigued and repelled by advertising in equal measure, and that if she ever wanted to pick my brain for ideas, she could do so. And she said she would. There may be a new career here; stay tuned for further developments. And speaking of development, man, I know a way for you to get six more inches, guaranteed...

Monday, October 22, 2007

One week away...

Hey kids, just a reminder that The Book of Samson is released in paperback on Tuesday, October 30. It's ideal for, um... Christmas? Well, maybe. Thanksgiving? No, probably not. Halloween? Yeah! So, be sure to go buy several dozen copies to give to the kids when they come trick-or-treating. There's the ticket. Man, they'll never ring your doorbell again...

A Worthy Cause

For the past several years I've been involved with a non-profit mental health facility in Karachi, Pakistan called Karwan-e-Hayat ("Caravan of Hope"). By "involved with", I mean I give them money. They need it. Pakistan's facilities for the treatment of mental illness are woefully underfunded and unlikely to get a great deal better anytime soon.

For ten years I worked in mental health in Massachusetts and Arizona, doing everything from overnight staffing at a house for juvenile offenders coming out of the criminal justice system, to working with 3- to 5-year-olds with autism, to acting as a case manager for 40+ chronic mentally ill clients. I was also the assistant director of an apartment complex in Tucson that provided housing to 22 indigent mentally ill people; I ran a group home, and worked in a couple others. So I have some exerience with docs and case management and so forth. My point here is that Karwan-e-Hayat, which I toured a couple of years ago, is as good a facility as anything I've seen in the US. The buildings are spacious and clean--there's one for men, one for women, with both inpatient and outpatient facilities in each. There's plenty of staff around who seem to know what they're doing, and the doctor in charge of the whole thing is on the ball and up-to-date with current treatments. The patients looked active and engaged, and Nurse Ratchet was nowhere to be seen.

This is impressive given the obstacles that have been overcome to establish the place, the main one being, of course, funding. Most of the patients are poor, in part because the poor have so little access to treatment anywhere else. (Patients who can afford to see a private doc will do so.) As a result, something like 90% of the patients at Karwan-e-Hayat receive all treatment for free.

Much of Pakistan's annual budget goes to "defense" (you know what that means) and "development"--nice things like roads and bridges and rural electrification and hey, maybe even a school or two. This is fine. But when the money's used up there's nothing left over for, say, the several million people who have significant mental illness and little chance of getting information, much less treatment, for it. So it falls upon the private sector to pick up the slack.

I ask you all to click on this link and check out Karwan-e-Hayat's web site:

http://www.keh.org.pk/

And if you can donate something, it's much appreciated, so thanks. It's tax deductible, so go wild.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Should JK Rowling win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

No, really. This is a serious question.

I’m not a complete idiot. (Insert joke here.) I’m not saying that Rowling is a fantastic writer--she’s good, sometimes very good, but she’s not jaw-dropping. Nor does her work deserve to be upheld as the highest standard possible. She is, frankly, better than average some of the time (Harry Potter #1-3), average some of the time (HP #4-6), and pretty sucky at least once in a while (HP #7 and that whole fookin’ Dobby-the-house-elf thing. Oh my Gawd.)

But are Nobel Prize winners really always that great? Gunter Grass won, and man, I got through about six pages of The Tin Drum before giving it up for, I think, Gangsters From Space or something. JM Coetzee won, and the only thing I ever read by him, Disgrace, was underwhelming--put it this way, I found Harry a whole lot more emotionally involving. Nadine Gordimer is mediocre in my opinion, and VS Naipaul? Don’t get me started, dude.


Yes, of course good writers win too. Steinbeck, Harold Pinter, I’m sure there are others. (Faulkner? Hemingway? Okay man, if you say so.) But it’s by no means a given.

So the argument that quality is paramount is, to me, suspect. Especially when you throw in a few great writers who have never won--Vonnegut for example, who certainly created his own style and a hefty body of work, or Ray Bradbury, or Flannery O’Connor or Langston Hughes. (Admittedly, Flannery died young.) And these are just Americans; there are tons of others around the world, I’m sure, whom I never heard of. Meanwhile the other argument against Rowling, I suppose, is that she’s primarily a children’s writer, notwithstanding the millions of adults who read her books. But if Winston Churchill (1954) can win for writing history and Bertrand Russell (1950) can win for philosophy, why can’t a children’s author win? (In which case, add Dr Seuss to the list of “deserving authors who never got it.” That guy was a genius, no joke.)

So then. Doubtless you are wondering: “If she’s not a great writer and she doesn’t even write books for adults, Dave, then what’s your logic? Tell me more! I’m eager to learn.”

The reason Rowling deserves a Nobel is for her services to literature.

Think about it. Twenty years from now, when you walk into a bookshop, everybody in that store aged from, let’s say, twenty to forty-five--every one of them will have read at least some of Rowling’s books. In other words, everyone who is presently younger than twenty-five--who was, therefore, less than fifteen when the whole sheebang started ten years ago--and who is even remotely interested in reading books, will have at least snatched a peek at Sorcerer’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets or Goblet of Whatever. This is not a scientific poll, obviously; but wait until 2027, walk into your local Border’s or B&N or whatever they have in those days, and ask around. “Hey, did you ever read any of that Harry Potter stuff when you were a kid?” The “yes” replies will be unanimous. You’ll see.

This is no small thing. Why does it matter? It matters because a whole generation of kids has learned that sitting by yourself in a corner for hours at a time with only a book for company can actually be a pretty great experience. This is something I learned young, but I didn’t have computers and video games and ipods and cell phones to distract me. If I had, who knows how I would’ve turned out? I know, I know, there are HP movies and video games and all the rest of the crap that the kids are subjected to, but the fact is that millions of them are reading too. In 2004 I was in Malaysia and saw a kid on the beach reading the German edition; I’ve seen kids in Karachi bent over the Urdu translation in Pizza Hut, no kidding. The stories are endless. You’ve probably seen a few of these kids too. Are they just doing it to be cool and fashionable? Who cares? They’re reading books, for God’s sake, and if Rowling has somehow made reading books cool and fashionable, then Jesus-Mary-and-Joseph, let’s get that prize in the mail, pronto.

There is another objection people have about Rowling, which must be considered although I don’t think she is entirely to blame. This is the argument that she has actually hurt writers like me, whose sales are a tiny fraction of hers, because she has introduced the blockbuster mentality into publishing. This is what has pretty much eviscerated big-studio filmmaking: the lowest-common-denominator approach of the studios, who are largely uninterested in making any movies that don’t contain numerous explosions, car-plane-or-boat chases, and tits. These things have sold in large quantities before, the thinking goes, so let’s use them again, and again, and again… Before HP, nobody had seriously thought you could make hundreds of millions of dollars from a bunch of kids’ books; now that it’s been proven to be possible, the pressure will be on publishers, editor and agents--and therefore writers--to come up with the next blockbuster. A publisher will read a manuscript by someone like me, and it will be a unique, individual story, maybe even unlike anything that’s come across the desk in a while; and for that very reason it will be rejected. Meanwhile, the book that reads “like a cross between Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket, with some talking animals like in Narnia” will get snatched up. Take it from me: it’s happening already. True fact. But.

I don’t think readers are really that stupid. Editors might be, and no doubt there will be some lame HP imitations foisted on the public in the coming years. But I think these will fail. There will be another mega-sensation somewhere down the road, but I doubt it will be the one that’s hyped and pushed and paid for and expected to do well. It will be some quirky little thing that nobody thinks will be so huge, just like HP was. In the meantime, writers like myself will continue to carve out small niche audiences who like to read our books, and we’ll get by. I truly believe this; if I didn’t, I’d go jump off a bridge.

Sometimes I think literature is doing just fine. It’s survived in one form or another since Gilgamesh, and it will continue doing so. Other times I think it’s an endangered species, ten or twenty years away from extinction. This is actually what I think most of the time these days. Before long we’re going to have chips in our brains to make 3-D sensurround virtual realities whenever we want (Climb the Himalayas! Fly in a rocket to the planet Qwestar! Hump Salma Hayek!) and I suppose someone will have to write those programs, but it ain’t gonna be me, babe. As it is already, if you spend any time in a school these days, you know exactly how much kids read, which is to say, hardly at all, as opposed to how much they play computer games, which is, as much as they can manage. I’m not dumping on the kids; they just do what’s more engaging to them, and most of them find shooting people onscreen more engaging than turning pages. But right under our noses, Rowling has created several million new readers. Not to be overly dramatic, but she’s helped keep literature alive for another generation. I for one am really grateful. In thirty years, one of those new readers might even pick up a book I wrote. Imagine that. I will owe Rowling, then. And because I don’t know where I’ll be in 2037, I’m thanking her ahead of time.

Thanks, Joanne. Have fun with that Nobel; you deserve it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Tempus fugit

Hey kids, another week has gone by somehow... not sure where it went. Among other things, I finished reading Delirium, a novel by the Colombian writer Laura Restrepo. A new writer to me, though she's well known in South America and Europe, and astrange dreamy book but a very engaging one. A guy comes home froma business trip to find his wife checked into a hotel, having lost her marbles. He's left trying to figure out what happened. She alternates between hostility and utter lack of response. There are multiple storylines ifrom the past and present, a number of narrators (you're left figuring out who is who), and run-on sentences galore. This book is great but it's a grammar teacher's worst nightmare. I know because I was one. (A grammar teacher, not a nightmare.) Take a look:

“Since she already knows The Decameron by heart, Agustina paid no attention to it, instead spending the whole movie mocking my cropped head, and since she was still going strong when we stepped out into the cold, she began to play at covering my head with her scarf, supposedly so that I wouldn’t catch cold, Let me take care of you, Aguilar, baldness is the Achilles’ heel of senior citizens, and as we walked form the center of the city along Seventh Road at midnight, in other words at precisely the happy hour for muggings and stabbings, she fixed me a turban a la Greta Garbo, Bugs Bunny ears with the two ends of the scarf, and a Palestinian head covering a la Yasir Arafat, while I, tense and vigilant, watched every shape that moved on the lonely street, a couple of figures crouched over a fire on the corner of Jimenez de Quesada, sleeping in cardboard shelters in the doorway of San Francisco, a boy stoned out of his mind who followed us for a while and fortunately passed us by, and I wanted to say to my wife, who kept improvising caps, wigs, and headdresses for me, Not here, Tina darling, wait until we get home, but I didn’t because I knew too well that for Agustina elation is just one step away from melancholy.”

Yes folks, that's one sentence with whole piles of information packed into its 216 words, 24 clauses and numerous errors of punctuation, if one heeds orthodoxy. So even though I think the style is perfect for this dreamy, off-kilter, delirious-seeming story, you may be the sort of person who runs away screaming from such excesses.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Eid Mubarak, and other things

Here in my adopted home of Pakistan it's been Eid for the past two days. So Happy Eid, or as we say around here, Eid Mubarak. This is the two-day holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the month spent fasting and not smoking cigarettes or having sex or generally indulging in anything that falls under the category of "having a good time." You're also supposed to give money to the poor and, you know, stop lying and so on. Or at least do it less. Uzee and I have been spending the last couple days visiting people and having a nice sociable time catching up, etc. It's all terribly wholesome.

My ma tells me that the Empire State Building, which has for years been lit up on holidays--green white & orange for St Patrick's Day, green and red for Christmas, red white & blue for the 4th of July and so on--was this year, for the first time ever, lit up green for Eid. What a hoot! I must say I'm all for it. Anything for, you know, inclusion and fellowship as opposed to, say, exclusion and ostracization. Right on.

In other exciting news, the New England Patriots yesterday hosed the the previously unbeaten but now thoroughly beaten Dallas Cowboys. Yes, "America's so-called team" experienced a thrashing on Sunday afternoon, and it's becomingly increasingly possible that the Pats will be unbeaten this season. I don't think so; they may well lose to the Colts in Indianapolis in early November, and probably one other game--a shocker to someone unexpected like Washington or Baltimore. But it must be said, that getting past the Cowboys as easily as they did, bodes well for the future.

Current musical obsession, not that you've asked: I've been listening without relent to The Brian Jonestown Massacre for lo these past few weeks with no sign of letup. They are one of the bands featured in the documentary Dig!, along with the Dandy Warhols. They're kind of retro-60s, except that they don't give the impression of a band that's gone back to that era so much as one that never left in the first place. Lots of twangy droning guitar with plenty of effects like phase-shifting and distortion, seasoned with bits of organ and sitar, built around simple 3- or 4-chord progressions and trippy-hippy-dippy lyrics. The singing isn't the greatest but the whole thing is wrapped around such a groove that it's well-nigh irresistible. For me anyway. Every so often you get this, like, folky guitar-strummy thing and you start thinking, "God, please don't let this last more than two minutes," and happily, it usually doesn't.

The other great thing is you can download all their records as zipped .rar files for free, and play them on your computer. (If you have WinZip or something like it.) That's pretty generous... Nicer than us cheapskate writers who want you to actually go buy our books or something, eh?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Nobel endeavors

A couple quick thoughts about the Nobel prizes: Nice work with Al Gore. I haven't seen An Inconvenient Truth yet, but everything I've read/heard about it seems positive, though sobering. And it's just nice to see a guy get a major high-profile prize for worrying about the environment, which is so often laughed off or treated as mundane by Big Powerful People Who Decide Policy. And while I couln't comment on Al's credentials vis-a-vis all the other people out there beavering away on the same issue for years, but who aren't as famous as he is because they've never been vice president of anything, it does at least seem like he's a serious thoughtful guy who was writing books on this topic years ago (Earth in the Balance).

As for Doris Lessing winning the lit prize, well, okay. I read more or less one book by her, in the '80s sometime, The Good Terrorist. I never finished it and barely remember it. I may have taken in a short story or two along the way also, though they never stuck in my memory either. I really have very little opinion of her, as opposed to, say, Harold Pinter, who won a couple years ago and whose plays I love love love. (Saw The Caretaker performed in a tiny theatre in London in 1983, and it knocked me out of my chair. I've also always loved The Dumb Waiter. Great title, that.) Rightly or wrongly, I've always mentally lumped Lessing in with other gray postwar Brits whom I tried once or twice but who never made much impression. (Iris Murdoch also fits this category, and John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, and others who elude me at the moment.) But I gather she's won buckets or prizes over the years, and while that's no ironclad indicator of quality, it does suggest that a few well-placed people consider worthy of a little time. So I may have to look her up again.

This just in...

As I sit here digesting my breakfast and listening to The Brian Jonestown Massacre (that's a band, Ma), I'm holding in my hands the brand-spankin' new paperback of The Book of Samson. And I have to say--knowing I'll be accused of bias here--it looks pretty darn great. Just another fine job form the production people at St Martin's Press.

Look for it in bookshops starting around Halloween. Need I say, it makes a fine fine Christmas gift?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

For the reader who has everything (except a good command of English)

Here are the covers of my Italian editions of The Preservationist and Fallen. What's interesting, to me at least, is that the Italians went with a very obvious image for Noah's story: a big boat on the water, stormy seas, dark clouds; the standard-issue imagery for the story, in other words. But for Fallen they shifted into this weird psychadelic eye-popping mode, about as un-"Biblical" as you can get. It reminds me of the climactic sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm not at all sure I like the cover--in fact I doubt I'd ever pick it up, not least of all because the bright shocking pink puts me off, and that baby is kind of weird. But it's certainly edgy and not staid or typical, which I appreciate.

My UK publisher Canongate tries to go for edgy also, and sometimes it works better than other times. I like this cover for The Flood quite a lot (my publisher didn't like the title Preservationist, and wanted to change it to something more direct), but I think the Samson cover tries too hard for irony or something; the overly self-conscious anachronism of the scissors with English lettering on them is maybe too clever for its own good. But then for the new edition, this cover was replaced with a cartoon that I like even less, so, be careful what you wish for. Both these covers have colored washes overlaying them, which don't show up on screen. The Flood is pale blue, while Samson is silvery gray. There's also a Fallen cover in this mode, with an apple, done in red. Meanwhile, the first UK edition of Fallen had this super-intense close-up up-the-nostril shot of this guy who was, presumably, Cain (the mark on his forehead is the giveaway). I vacillated between hating it and thinking it was pretty good. It's one of those love-it-or-hate-it covers, I think. My mom hates it.

Then we have our German pals, who are fairly incomprehensible when it comes to cover design. The Noah story here features a bearded white guy pointing down from the heavens; the title translates as something like Orders From the Top, which is sort of a business expression which, I gather, is used somewhat ironically in this case. I don't actually mind the image too much. The cover for Fallen, though, is awful. The cartoon children in the middle are wrong; they miss the essential sadness at the heart of the story, while the white & strawberry-blonde Adam & Eve overlook (or ignore) the fact that I was trying to subvert that convention by playing around with race in the story. Oh well.


Overall, then, a mixed bag, but I can't complain too much. Better by far to have foreign editions with some good and some so-so covers, than no foreign editions at all. So I'll leave you with two of my favorites: the Japanese version of Noah, put out in hardcover by Sony books, and the Russian one, from Amphora. This image doesn't really do the Japanese book justice: the real-life cover is much less pale and washed out, but you get an idea of the childlike illustration. The Russian book I just love; love the colors, love the fish. It's a small hardback, about the size of a mass-market paperback, and the colors are matte except the boat and the fish, which are shiny. Love it. It looks like The Hobbit or something, which is fine by me.

Monday, October 8, 2007

My mom wants me to tell you that...

...Ishmael Beah, who wrote A Long Way Gone (see below), is a graduate of Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio. Which is also where I went to school. A longstanding tradition of literary excellence, perhaps? You decide. Hey, William Goldman went there too (and gave my commencement address in 1985), the guy who wrote Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and The Princess Bride (books and movies, all of them) among much other stuff. Also Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Thornton Wilder (Our Town). And probably a lot more that I don't know about. So, you know, not bad for a little school in Ohio.

By the way, the Patriots beat the Browns, so they're now 5-0. Next week, the Cowboys in Dallas. Should be a good game.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Sunday afternoon: Pats at Browns

Yes, campers, it's true: I'm a huge NFL fan, and have followed it since I was about ten years old. And to make things even worse, my fave team is none other than the current dynasty, the so-good-they're-scary New England Patriots. Hey man, I've followed them since 1973, through the Steve Grogan years (remember Steve? Great guy), the '80s with their brief flare of Ray Berry / Tony Eason glory (quickly extinguished by the, ahem, Chicago Bears), into the nadir of 1989-1993 during which time, I believe, they won fewer games during a 5-year span than any team in NFL history (don't quote me on that, I'm not sure, but it was really bad; like 20 wins to 60 losses or thereabouts), through the teasing Drew Bledsoe / Bill Parcells era culminating in another hosing by another great NFC team (this time Brett Favre's Packers), through the next nadir of the late '90s, till suddenly--huh? What?--they began winning more games than they lost. Believe me it was weird. And something else, it's still weird. So every time I watch a game or look for a score on the internet or whatever, I have thirty-odd years of shattered expectations waiting to hear something horrible. And then, more often than not, they win. This little nugget of surprise opens up in me and lingers there. And that's why I love the Pats.

Plus, I used to love Belichick, though that's been tempered by these cheating-by-videotape allegations / convictions.

Today (it's already Sunday as I write this in Pakistan, though it's Saturday night in the US, confusing but true) the Pats take on the Browns and should win, bringing them to 5-0. Next week it's the Cowboys, who look good this year. If they can beat them, I think the Pats will do very well this year. People are talking about an undefeated season but I predict 14-2, which is still pretty darn good. I expect them to lose to either the Cowboys or the Colts, later in the year; and I think they will drop one game unexpectedly, to someone like the Ravens.

And you thought, what, this was a blog about books or something?